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Hey-diddle-diddle, the nursery rhyme riddle / 10 November 2014

One poem that John picked up on was the pastiche ‘Mary had a wheelchair’, a little poem about disability access:

Mary had a wheelchair
It rolled across the floor.
And everywhere that Mary went
She couldn’t get in the door.

I may have underestimated this poem. In live performance I use it to follow ‘What happens to old epileptics?’.  Being the darkest poem I read live, all about drowning in the bath and the like, it tends to leave audiences a little shell-shocked.  So I throw in a little humorous poem, everybody laughs and the tension is relieved.

I may as a result have assumed that any laughs the poem gets are the result of its context, and not given it enough credit in its own right.  Admittedly, the poem was more bitingly satirical when I first wrote the poem twenty years ago, at a time when wheelchair access was a lot rarer than it is now.  But John liked it all the same.

He suggested that I should produce a whole set of such parodies - a kind of crip Mother Goose. Well, I tried, honestly I did.  But I can’t see it working.

For a start, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ does lend itself particularly well to parody, as seen in such examples as

Mary had a little lamb,
She ate it with mint sauce
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb went too, of course.


Mary had a little bear
To which she was so kind
And everywhere that Mary went
You saw her bear running along beside her.

(These two are taken from Arnold Silcock’s 1952 collection ‘Verse and Worse’.)

It’s very well known, which helps with a parody.  It has a very simple structure and rhyme scheme.  A quick change of ending to the first line, and off you go. And it’s also a bit twee, a characteristic which cries out for debunking.  

Most nursery rhymes are not like this; they are folk poetry, whose originals are significantly more forthright than bowdlerised later edits. The earliest collection of nursery rhymes, the 1744 ‘Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book’  contains this gem

Little Robin Red breast,
Sitting on a pole,
Niddle, Noddle, went his head.
And poop went his hole. 

The same source produces:

Piss a Bed,
Piss a Bed,
Barley Butt,
Your Bum is so heavy,
You can't get up. 

And rhymes such as ‘Three Blind Mice’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ have in common with classic fairy stories that they contain a remarkable degree of physical violence.

But ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is a different kind of work. Unusually, we know when and by whom it was written.  It was an original poem by the American Sarah Josepha Hale, published in 1830. It’s never been part of an oral tradition, so it’s retained its nineteenth century prissiness.

Few rhymes lend themselves quite so well to parody.  Obviously, you can shoehorn disability references into existing rhymes, to produce stuff like

Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John
Went to bed with his prosthesis on
One leg off and one leg on
Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John

But so what?  For the exercise to have any point, it has to achieve some degree of wider comment or satirical statement.  And that’s not so easy.

Keywords: folk poetry,mother goose,nursery rhymes,parody,pastiche